Links You’ll Want
It was still early, and so quiet that Colleen could hear the soft snick of her car’s doors unlocking as she pushed the ‘unlock’ icon on her key fob. The heels of her pumps clicked gently on the stairs as she went from the townhouse’s front door down to the street.
She slid into the driver’s seat of her Lexus, put her travel mug in the drink holder, tossed her telephone onto the passenger seat, fastened the safety belt, and started the motor. Half a block away, she felt something cold at the back of her neck and heard a voice hissing. ‘Don’t turn around. Don’t make any noise. Just drive.’
‘What the –’
‘Are you deaf, bitch? I said shut up and drive!’ Colleen felt a sharp prod in her neck. She nodded once and kept her eyes forward. Whoever it was would see it right away if she tried to reach for her telephone or even push the emergency services button on the car’s dashboard. She swallowed a few times as she tried to think.
This was even easier than Dean thought it would be. All he had to do was wait until he heard the car doors unlock. Then he dived into the back seat and crouched down. Now he just had to find the right place to do the rest. A quick call, and then things would fall into place. He’d planned to ask for fifty thousand, but now he thought about it, maybe he could go higher. The husband could sure as hell afford it. He poked the knife into the woman’s neck again, just to remind her that he was there.
After a few miles, Colleen heard the hissing again. ‘Take the next right. Onto the county highway. And no bullshit, either.’ She nodded – at least he let her do that much – and made the turn when it came up. Tears welled up in the corner of each eye, but she didn’t dare brush them away. A few blinks would have to suffice. She breathed as deeply as she could and tried to settle her mind to figure out what to do. It was a chilly morning, but she could feel herself sweating, and her hands getting clammy, as she drove.
Scott rolled over and grabbed his telephone. ‘Hello?’
‘We have your wife. If you want her to stay alive, listen carefully.’
Scott sat up and stared straight ahead as he listened to the instructions he was given. When the call was finished, he put down the telephone. From beside him, he heard the rustling of sheets as Brenda rolled over and sat up. ‘Who was that?’ she asked.
Scott got up and hastily put on his jeans and t-shirt. ‘I have to go,’ he answered. ‘It’s Colleen. She’s in trouble.’ As he leaned over to put on his socks and trainers, Brenda could hear his muffled promise to call her later. Then he was up and out the door.
As Scott got into his Land Rover, he couldn’t help smiling a little. This was working out perfectly. Dean had said everything right, so when the police heard the recording he’d made, they’d take the bait. Brenda’d heard everything she was supposed to hear, too. And it wouldn’t be his fault if Dean happened to kill Colleen. The hundred thousand that Dean had mentioned was more than they’d agreed on. That was low of him. But even so, Scott could come up with it, and it would be worth that much to get Dean out of the country and Colleen out of the way. Her inheritance would set Scott and Brenda up for the rest of their lives and then some.
After he finished his call, Dean put the burner phone on the seat beside him. He smiled a little as he thought about where he’d go when this was done, and he’d picked up the rest of his money. Maybe someplace tropical. Yeah, he was getting tired of winters. But right now, he had the rest of the job to do.
Colleen heard the hissing again. ‘Make the next left.’ She flicked the indicator when the time came and made the turn. This road was a quiet one, but not completely abandoned. Maybe she could yell out the window or something. But no, he’d likely shoot her, or stab her, or whatever, before she could. He might do that, anyway, although it had sounded like he just wanted money. But kidnappers did kill their victims.
The road stretched out ahead, empty at the moment. No other cars, and nothing but trees and then a new housing development. Of course! The housing development!
Colleen suddenly swerved sharply and drove towards the development’s entrance. She took a deep breath and braked. ‘Keep driving,’ the voice said, this time snarling. She took another breath, kept her left hand on the wheel, and with the right hand, shoved her seat backwards, knocking the guy back a little. Then she grabbed her coffee mug and swung it behind her, smashing it into her attacker’s face. She heard a string of curses coming from the back seat. She grabbed her telephone, jumped out of the car, and ran towards the development. She must look like hell, but she banged on the first door she found.
Dean struggled to get free, but he was stuck behind the driver’s seat, and his face was bleeding where that goddamned mug had hit him. The lid had come off, and the coffee was hot as hell. Shaking his head a little, he looked out the front window of the car and saw the woman run towards one of the houses. ‘Shit!’ he yelled as he made a final scramble to get out. Then he heard the car doors click as the woman hit the ‘lock’ button on her key fob.
Two hours later, Scott was in his living room, waiting for his telephone to ring again. Why the hell hadn’t that idiot called? He was supposed to have taken care of everything by now. He looked up sharply when he heard the front door. What the hell? Had Dean actually come to the house? He stood up and went to the door just in time to see a bedraggled-but-still-alive Colleen come through it. His face went pale as Colleen told him what had happened. ‘The cops got the guy,’ she finished. ‘But we have to give statements and everything.’
‘Don’t worry,’ he said as he put his arms around her, his chin on her head. ‘I’ll take care of it all.’ And he would, too, as soon as he could.
‘Here goes nothing,’ Gerry said.
Lacey grinned at him. ‘Go on! See if it’s a winner.’
Gerry typed in the lottery website’s address. When the string of numbers came up, he carefully compared each one to the numbers printed on the ticket he held. No go. Then he picked up the second lottery ticket he’d bought, and matched the numbers again. His mouth opened, and then shut. ‘Lacey, honey, you check. I might be wrong.’ Lacey practically grabbed the ticket from Gerry’s hand and looked at the numbers. She compared each one to the numbers on the computer screen.
‘Oh, my sweet God, we won!’ she breathed.
‘Four hundred million goddamn dollars!’ Gerry said.
For a minute, neither said anything more. Gerry looked around the living room of the one-bedroom apartment they’d lived in for the last five years. No more worn carpet or bad heating, and they could get new furniture – anything Lacey wanted. Lacey must have been thinking the same thing. She looked at Gerry and said, ‘We can go anywhere we want. Have any kind of house. Any furniture. I can’t believe it!’
Then, Gerry thought of something. ‘We better not tell anyone. At least not yet.’
Lacey wasn’t stupid. ‘You’re right,’ she said, nodding slowly. ‘It’s best to wait until we have a lawyer. We’re going to have people crawling out of the woodwork begging for money.’
‘That’s for sure,’ Gerry agreed. ‘For now, we’ll keep it to ourselves. But I’m going out to get a bottle of champagne.’
‘I couldn’t agree more,’ Lacey said with a wide smile.
That night, Gerry couldn’t sleep. Thoughts and plans kept whirling in his mind. There seemed no limit to what he and Lacey could do with that much money. After a while, he gave up on sleeping, got out of bed, and went into the living room, where he stood for a while looking out of the window. Finally, he decided. He was going to have to tell someone. He was just too excited not to. Leon, he thought to himself. Leon would be the perfect person. He and Leon had been best friends since high school, and Leon would keep his mouth shut. Lacey probably wouldn’t like it, but she and Leon got along well. She’d be all right with it in the end. It was almost three – way too late to call now. He’d talk to Leon first thing in the morning. With that off his mind, Gerry flopped down on the sofa and nodded off.
Leon tapped the ‘End Call’ button on his telephone and slowly slid it back into his pocket. Four hundred million dollars. He couldn’t even imagine that much. Gerry and Lacey were lucky. And Gerry’d said he would set Leon up. And just in time, too. Leon didn’t like to think about the pile of unpaid bills, and the rent he owed on his place. It wasn’t his fault, really. The company’d done a bloodletting, and he was one of the sacrifices. He had interviews lined up, but nothing had happened yet. Four hundred million dollars. What if he had all of that money? What couldn’t you do with that much? An idea came to him, then. Just an idea. But the more he thought about it, the better it seemed. Later that day, he called Gerry back.
‘You don’t mind, do you?’ Gerry asked Lacey.
‘No, I’m making spaghetti. There’s plenty for Leon, too.’
Gerry gave her an extra kiss. He was glad she and Leon got along.
After dinner that evening, the three of them sat in Gerry and Lacey’s living room.
‘We’re going to see the lawyer on Tuesday,’ Gerry said.
‘That’s a good idea,’ Leon answered. ‘You want to protect yourselves.’ Then he got up to go to the bathroom. On his way, he passed the small desk that held Gerry’s laptop. Just peeping out from under the keyboard was the edge of the lottery ticket. This was going to be even easier than he’d thought. He glanced up to see if either of his hosts was watching. Nope. They weren’t paying any attention to him. He quickly grabbed the ticket and put it in his pocket.
An hour later, Leon stood up. ‘I’d better be going,’ he said. The other two stood up. Lacey hugged him and picked up the wine glasses to take them to the kitchen. ‘I’ll walk you to your car,’ Gerry said. ‘Let me just get my coat.’ The two headed for the door, and, after he’d shut it, Gerry said quietly, ‘I didn’t want to say it in front of Lacey, but I saw you.’
‘Saw me what?’
‘You took the lottery ticket, Leon. I saw it.’
They were at the top of the ice-covered steps leading down to the street. Leon swallowed, his face pale in the light of the street lamp. ‘I – I –’
‘I can’t believe you’d do that,’ Gerry went on. ‘It was really stupid of you.’
‘I know, I know.’
‘Did you really think I’d –’
Leon took a deep breath. ‘I’m sorry, Gerry.’ Then he pushed hard and watched as Gerry tumbled down the stone steps and landed on the pavement. He couldn’t look back as he passed Gerry’s body and rushed to his car.
The next day, Leon took the ticket to the lottery district office. He’d even remembered to sign it, to prove that it was his. He showed the ticket to the representative, who asked for his ID. After that was done, the representative said, ‘All we have to do now is verify that this ticket is the winner. I’ll just check the numbers again, just to be sure.’
Leon nodded. He could hardly wait, but he didn’t want to seem too anxious. After a moment, the representative frowned slightly, and then scanned the ticket again. And again. Finally, she looked up. ‘I’m sorry, Sir. This ticket isn’t a winner.’
‘What? Could you check again?’
‘If you’d like me to, but I’ve already checked three times.’ Another check gave the same result.
Leon practically stumbled out of the office. Not a winner? How the hell could that be? Then it hit him. Of course! They must have bought more than one ticket.
Lacey stared at herself in the mirror. It was killing her to do this without Gerry. There was a gaping hole in her life now. But it helped to know that one of the last things he’d done was to be sure she’d be all right. She gave her appearance one last check, and then left the apartment to go to the bank, where Gerry had stored the winning ticket in their safe deposit box.
As this is posted, it’s the 93rd birthday of Angela Lansbury. As you’ll know, she’s had a long and successful career on stage and in film. And that includes several crime fiction productions such as Gaslight (she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for her work on that film). She also took the role of Eleanor Iselin in John Frankenheimer’s 1962 thriller The Manchurian Candidate. Since that time, she’s had many other roles.
For instance, Agatha Christie fans will know that she portrayed Salome Otterbourne in John Guillermin’s 1978 adaptation of Christie’s Death on the Nile. Two years later, she took the role of Miss Marple in Guy Hamilton’s 1980 version of The Mirror Crack’d. She is, clearly, no stranger to on-screen crime fiction.
She is, perhaps, best-known for her role as Jessica Fletcher in the 1984-1996 US television series Murder, She Wrote. Even if you’ve never seen the show, you’ll no doubt know its premise. Fletcher is a retired English teacher who’s found a new career as a mystery novelist. She becomes quite successful but maintains a ‘normal’ sort of home in Cabot Cove, Maine (although she travels in several episodes). As the series goes on, she also spends time in New York City, where she teaches occasional university-level courses. And there are the murders she solves, too, of course. The series did well for some time, even inspiring a book series, a board game, and video games.
If you’ve seen the show, then you’ll know that it isn’t exactly realistic, especially by today’s crime fiction standards, and especially if you like police procedurals. And there’s the ‘Cabot Cove’ syndrome; just how many people really can be killed in a small place like Cabot Cove? There’ve been other criticisms, too.
But the show resonated with millions of people, and Lansbury was nominated for an Emmy Award for Best Actress in each of the show’s 12 seasons. And there are, at least in my opinion, some good reasons for which Murder, She Wrote, and Lansbury, had the success that they did.
For one thing, many of the plots were traditional-style whodunits, which appeal to quite a lot of crime fiction fans. Yet, they were clothed in then-modern settings and contexts. This combination made the show very popular with those who weren’t interested in too much grit or gore, but who did want actual murder mystery plots and more up-to-date (at the time) contexts.
The plots themselves might not have always been entirely credible. Still, they involved believable murder motives (like greed, jealousy, and so on). And they didn’t depend on super-technology, physical heroics, or ‘miracle’ weapons.
And then there’s the character of Jessica Fletcher, and Lansbury’s portrayal of her. She’s retired and widowed, but not at all the traditional ‘pie-baking granny’ type (despite her seemingly inexhaustible supply of nieces and nephews). She is active, hard-working, and an interesting case study of finding a new career after a first career is ended. For many viewers, it is refreshing to see a main character who’s no longer young, but who is active, independent, and very much a part of life. At the time, there weren’t as many shows as there are now featuring middle-aged and late-middle-aged characters in roles that show them living fulfilling, busy lives.
There’s also the fact that, although she’s not a young woman, Jessica Fletcher is not portrayed as a frumpy old lady. She dresses attractively, hasn’t forgotten how to dance and go on dates, and so on. In fact, she attracts the attention of more than one admirer in the course of the show and has more than one relationship. This, too, is refreshing for viewers who don’t like the stereotype of middle-aged people being ready to be put ‘out to pasture.’
There are certainly aspects of the show that aren’t realistic. But Jessica Fletcher’s way of solving crimes is in keeping with her character’s age, strength, and so on. She doesn’t have superpowers, and she doesn’t use weapons. She doesn’t have extraordinary strength, either. Rather, she uses what she does have – her intelligence, her curiosity, her experience researching, and the relationships she’s built with others – to solve crimes. That, too, is refreshing for those who aren’t fond of a lot of violence or of things like gun battles. Jessica Fletcher’s approach to solving mysteries arguably makes sense, given who she is.
Murder, She Wrote may not be the most gut-level intense, realistic, gritty crime show that’s ever been made. But it did make some important contributions to crime TV. And Angela Lansbury has made even more important contributions to the genre on screen and on stage. And for that, I am grateful.
So, Happy Birthday, Ms. Lansbury, and many more.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Migahawk’s A Day in the Life of Jessica Fletcher.